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'Glass Menagerie' the Way Williams Wrote It : Newman Directs Woodward in a Film That Acquires 'a Life of Its Own' : 'Menagerie' True to Tennessee

November 01, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

NEW YORK — Although one clause of conventional wisdom says that opposites attract, there is a strong case to be made for common interests as the ties that really bind.

In their 30th year of marriage, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are as enthusiastic a model of togetherness as can be found. Both act, both direct, both love the stage and eloquent writing. They greatly admire each other's work and they seem to bring out the best in each other.

If they weren't so nonchalantly accepting about it all, they would invite skepticism, as if these were only public and not private roles. They stand in violation of what you would have to call the present norm, maritally speaking, in or out of show business.

Newman has just directed Woodward in a film of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," which opens in Los Angeles on Wednesday and which stars Karen Allen as her daughter, John Malkovich as her son and James Naughton as the Gentleman Caller.

Woodward strode into the Hotel Carlyle at teatime not long ago, pausing between a dentist's appointment (numbing but not traumatic) and a night at the opera. (She and Newman are opera lovers.)

It is one of the quizzicalities of fame that, although she has been a star since she won the 1957 Oscar as best actress for "The Three Faces of Eve," she is these days getting new smiles of recognition from passers-by--and a flowery compliment from the Carlyle waiter--because she has done an Audi commercial.

"It's to help pay for the documentary I'm doing on the Group Theatre," Woodward explains. "I drive an Audi anyway and I said what the heck it's a good cause." The Group Theatre was a predecessor to the Actors Studio, where she and Newman both studied, and as such it not only produced a generation of star actors, it profoundly affected the nature of American acting.

"I'm doing it for PBS and so far I've got 20 hours of film. I need to raise more money, but it's not an easy thing to fund-raise for. That's surprising, because without the Group the whole face of theater and film would be different."

She has found a vocal recording of the Group Theatre's 1937 production of "Golden Boy," with Luther Adler, John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb and Frances Farmer. She directed a new production of "Golden Boy" at the Williamstown Summer Theater earlier this year and put together a three-hour tribute to the Group, which she filmed as part of the documentary. "I'll have 25 hours of film, to cut to 90 minutes," Woodward says. "Wish me luck."

The production of "The Glass Menagerie" was first mounted at Williamstown, where Woodward is a regular. She, Allen and Naughton were in the cast, with the writer-director-actor John Sayles as the son (an alter ego for Williams himself in the autobiographical play).

It was such a success that it transfered to the Long Wharf in New Haven, with Treat Williams taking over from Sayles as the son.

"The film just started out to be an archive," Newman said on the phone the other day. "I thought the performances were so terrific it would be shameful not to have them recorded permanently. But somewhere in the process the film acquired--I don't know what the word is--a justification, a life of its own on its own account, a reason for being as a film."

Newman had directed his wife in "Rachel, Rachel," "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" and, for television, "The Shadow Box." Woodward had played Laura, the daughter, in a stage production of "The Glass Menagerie" in Greenville, S.C., when she was 19 and beginning her career as an actress. She won a local award as best supporting actress. Until now, she had not done Williams on stage again.

"The Glass Menagerie" was done for television by Katharine Hepburn in 1973. It was filmed once before, 37 years ago, with Gertrude Lawrence, Jane Wyman, Arthur Kennedy and Kirk Douglas in the roles and Irving Rapper directing. The usually reliable Leslie Halliwell called it "one of its author's lighter and more optimistic plays," which is like calling "Hamlet" one of Shakespeare's lighter and funnier works.

"It was much changed from the stage," Woodward says, (although Williams shared screenplay credit with Peter Berneis). "We wanted to do it just the way Tennessee wrote it. We didn't add a word."

"We cut a total of, I think, 26 lines," Newman says: "some interior monologues, and even Tennessee had complained about them. He said they were really there to facilitate scene changes and the intermission. But if anybody says, 'Can I see the script?' I say, 'Just get the play and read it."'

As an actress, Woodward says, "I don't like doing things off the top of my head." Although she was superb as a poet-professor being overwhelmed by Alzheimer's disease in television's "Do You Remember Love," it was an unhappy experience.

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